Josh Marshall has a post up describing the current McCain campaign as "the sleaziest, most dishonest and race-baiting campaign of our lifetimes." I'm not sure if that's true, but it is unquestionably sleazy and dishonest. What I think Marshall and others are missing, however, is the extent to which McCain's campaign builds on the precedents of the Bush White House (described in All the President's Spin) in its approach to the press and campaign communication, which is probably a result of the influence of former Bush operative Steve Schmidt.
Let's start with the media. During his presidency, Bush and other top officials have frequently challenged the legitimacy of the media and its role in the democratic process. For instance, then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card told the New Yorker "They don't represent the public any more than other people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election... I don't believe [the press has] a check-and-balance function."
When McCain's campaign was preventing the media from interviewing Sarah Palin, campaign manager Rick Davis expressed a similar view:
Why is she scared of answering questions? [Fox News Channel's Chris] Wallace asked.
"She's not scared to answer questions," Davis said, "but you know what? We run our campaign, not the news media."
Wallace said inappropriate intrusions into Palin's family and personal life aside, there are legitimate questions about whether she is prepared to be vice president.
"Sarah Palin will have the opportinity to speak to the American people," Davis said. "She will do interviews, but she'll do them on the terms and conditions" the campaign decides.
Like Bush, McCain's campaign has also tried to undermine dissent and harsh questioning. During the same interview quoted above, Davis told Chris Wallace that Palin won't be interviewed "until the point in time when she'll be treated with respect and deference" (via Steve Benen). Demanding "deference" from the press is almost explicitly anti-democratic -- Merriam-Webster defines it as "respect and esteem due a superior or an elder; also: affected or ingratiating regard for another's wishes." An elected official has no right to expect to be treated this way by a member of the press or the public.
Finally, McCain's campaign is following Bush's lead in making a series of highly misleading claims that are often based on some slender reed of truth (see here and here for compilations). For instance, as Bob Somerby noted on the Daily Howler, Palin's claim at the GOP convention that she put the state's luxury jet on eBay was "carefully constructed" to "mislead the public without misstating the facts." The jet actually did not sell on eBay and was later sold at a loss. Palin's statement was so well constructed that it even fooled McCain, who falsely claimed she sold the plane on eBay for a profit.
Similarly, McCain's campaign is relying on Obama's vote for a Democratic budget resolution to justify its claims that he will raise income taxes on all Americans. (In fact, Obama's plan would lower income taxes on most Americans by more than McCain's would.) The key to this strategy is to exploit the norms of "objective" reporting, which require a "he said"/"she said" approach even when disputes concern questions of fact.
What's incredible is how much McCain has been able to get away with in what seemed like a Democratic year. I have always attributed much of Bush's success at spinning the press in the 2001-2004 period to his post-9/11 boost in stature and legitimacy. McCain does not enjoy the same advantage and yet his tactics are still (seemingly) working. When will the press start calling him out?
Update 9/11 11:21 PM: The irony is that "objective" analysts like NBC's Chuck Todd and Time's Mark Halperin, who have not exactly been at the vanguard of the movement for more aggressive fact-checking, are drawing the line at the absurd "lipstick" controversy. While it's great to have them on board, where were they for the last eight years? What we're seeing now is the culmination of a process that they previously ignored.